Is it my imagination, or is Andy Burnham’s northern accent getting stronger by the day? Perhaps it’s the things he says, denouncing Labour’s capture by a “metropolitan elite”, urging reconnection with “the north, Midlands and the south” (in that order). His constituency – Leigh, in Greater Manchester – is cropping up a lot, along with his Liverpudlian birthplace. I am reminded of an offer that Peter Cook made to Michael Parkinson, who was born in Barnsley. Cook said he would make a donation to charity for every Parkinson programme that omitted the word “Barnsley”, adding: “I know it will be hard, Michael, but it can be done.”
Burnham seems to be adopting the unfashionable mantle of Professional Northerner, although it’s difficult to make a firm pronouncement. The historian and biographer Ben Pimlott once wrote that Harold Wilson’s apparent bluffness sat oddly with “cat-like” political manoeuvring, and we could say the same about Burnham, a Blairite chief secretary to the Treasury who then moved left. (The latest “black spider” disclosures unearthed a letter Burnham wrote, while health secretary, to Prince Charles, and his fulsome sign-off does suggest a talent for ingratiation). Burnham defends his latest change of tack by saying that in the election he had to be a “team player”, but it’s stretching the definition of that term to encompass “one who is loyal to a project until the moment it fails, at which point he condemns it out of hand”.
I count myself a connoisseur of Professional Northernism. As a writer born in Yorkshire, I’ve dabbled in it myself. I once wrote a novel featuring a man who belonged to that elite cadre of Professional Northerners: the Professional Yorkshiremen. The main character – an amalgam of Brian Clough, JB Priestley and other people unmentionable by virtue of being still alive – was a TV personality who prided himself that he “made all other professional Yorkshiremen look like amateurs”.
Melvyn Bragg, Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood are all getting on, and Morrissey lives in Rome, last time I heard
I know it doesn’t top the list of his crimes, but Jimmy Savile did immeasurable harm to Professional Yorkshire-ism, and I had thought the Professional Northerners in general were a dying breed, eclipsed by globalisation and multiculturalism. Melvyn Bragg, Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood are all getting on, and Morrissey lives in Rome, last time I heard. In north-south terms, it’s the Scots who are the leading grumblers … which is a teeny bit annoying to we Yorkshiremen, since the Scottish cultural identity and its economy seem in far better shape than those of what Geoff Boycott calls “God’s country”.
This is the danger for Burnham: that he’s allying himself with a weakened culture. If we set aside such pioneering early practitioners as Thomas Gradgrind, it seems evident that Professional Northernism peaked in the early 1960s when Macmillan’s “never had it so good” boom generated a confidence that made the north an artistic as well as an economic force. A New North emerged, with fictional characters such as Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or Billy Liar; or those in Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey, satirising their glum, flat-capped forebears.
Burnham is surely aware that northernness is not quite the force it was. When it was pointed out that the initial 35 MPs who had nominated him for the Labour leadership included none from south of Stoke, he responded with a further list including MPs for southern constituencies.
Another danger is that London might now be considered as much Labour’s heartland as the north, so anti-London rhetoric could backfire. But I detect some magnanimity in Labour-voting Londoners. Quite a few must have been willing to take the mansion tax on the chin, and they must include a lot of exiled northerners like me, who – mindful of the ancient diesel trains staggering across the Pennines – bristle at every London Evening Standard leader demanding yet more millions for a metropolitan transport system that can never hope to alleviate London’s No 1 problem: too many people live there.
Northern indignation at the hubris of the capital is rising, hence George Osborne’s courtship of the Greater Manchester powerhouse; hence also the emergence of a northern regionalism in the election, notably in the shape of a party calledYorkshire First.
Perhaps Burnham can ride the wave towards a reconnection with middle England. He recently tweeted the lyrics to a song by a Manchester band, the Courteeners: “I’m only a paperboy from the north-west, but I can scrub up well in my Sunday best.” At least that kind of scally bumptiousness is a recognisable character trait.
I for one would like to see Burnham give the Professional Northerner routine a good go, if only for old time’s sake.
A northerner, yesterday, in the North.